When it hit the big screen in 2000, Ridley Scott's Gladiator was a phenomenon. Starring Russell Crowe as Maximus, it was both a box office smash and a critical hit. A big part of its success was its ability to mix intense action with historical drama, creating a compelling protagonist and putting him through thrilling trials.
Because the film was such a hit, the powers that be in Hollywood naturally considered a sequel. There was just one big problem: at the end of Gladiator, Maximus loses his life at the hand of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and has a vision of his wife and child playing in a wheat field. Many ideas were tossed around for the sequel, including a story that focuses on Maximus's son, but the various concepts didn't make it past the ideation stages.
Enter Nick Cave, a musician, writer, and actor with an all-around bizarre persona. Cave is a literary rock star known for his dense lyrics that deal with love, religion, and fate. He had only written one screenplay before, a little-known Australian thriller from 1988. Crowe specifically sought out Cave to write a draft for Gladiator 2, but it's unlikely the actor had any idea how weird things were about to become.
In the final moments of the proposed movie, Maximus leads a group of rebel Christians against the Romans, who eventually retreat. As the Christians look at their fallen friends and enemies, Maximus warns, "They will be back."
Maximus bends down and picks up a handful of dirt; when he stands back up, he's dressed as a Crusader fighting Muslims in the Middle Ages. Then he's in WWII. Then he's in the jungles of Vietnam. Finally, he's dressed in a suit and tie, washing his hands in a bathroom in the Pentagon. He walks down a hallway, enters a conference room, opens up a laptop and says, "Now, where were we?"
After accepting his mission from the Roman gods, Maximus sets out across an endless desert where he immediately gets lost. Thirsty and exhausted, he trudges through the sand until he begins to experience a series of strange visions.
He first has a vision of a stag with its antlers caught in the brambles of a thicket. According to the script, "The stag looks at MAXIMUS with spooked, rolling eyes. The stag's head is torn by the brambles, its forehead speckled in bright blood."
Maximus continues on, coming to a rock where he sees five people wearing pagan masks and nothing else. One of them has the skin of the stag Maximus left behind. Maximus walks past them without acknowledgment.
Throughout his career, Nick Cave has wrestled with Christian questions. His song "Into Your Arms" has even been compared to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison, in which the theologian explores the relationship between earthly affection and divine love. Though Cave's perspective often lands in the realm of atheism, his curiosities are ever-present in his artistic expression.
Cave continues his religious exploration in the Gladiator 2 script, which was initially titled The Christ Killer. He told Marc Maron:
[Maximus] goes down to purgatory and is sent down by the gods, who are [perishing] in heaven because there's this one god, there's this Christ character, down on Earth who is gaining popularity and so the many gods send Gladiator back to [slay] Christ and his followers.
The movie opens with Maximus in a rainy forest as looters pick over his belongings. A spear strikes one of the men, prompting the other to run away. Maximus rises and is greeted by Mordecai, a messenger and presumably the thrower of the projectile. Mordecai ignores Maximus's confusion and instead assures him that he is there to "keep the peace."
Maximus follows Mordecai and the two make camp. Mordecai offers Maximus wine that is "rough as dog's guts, but the best you will find around here." He briefly confirms that the gladiator was in fact slain in the Colosseum at the end of the first movie. Maximus, intoxicated and confused, falls asleep and dreams of his wife and child playing in the wheat fields.